Tim’s schedule is full. He’s at the gym by 6:00 in the morning. Class from 9:00 to noon. He eats lunch, gets taped, dresses for football practice, and then watches game film from 2:00 to 3:30 before practicing for two hours. He showers, eats dinner, and ends his day at study hall.

On Fridays, things get trickier. He’s at Kenan Stadium at 10:30 in the morning for a quick practice, catches a 1:00 flight to Tallahassee, and arrives at the hotel by 4:00. He eats dinner and settles in for three hours of team meetings before bed. On game day he’s at Doak Campbell Stadium by 10:30 in the morning. Kickoff’s at 1:00. Three hours later he’s back in the locker room, game over. Off to the airport and back to Chapel Hill. Tim’s in bed by eleven. Trainers check his bruised knee first thing Sunday morning. He watches game film for a few hours and then practices for a couple more. On the seventh day, Monday, there’s no football (per NCAA rules).

All told, Tim dedicates more than forty hours a week to football. He plans on graduating, but the NFL might come calling. Or once his athletic eligibility is up, he might return to his hometown a couple dozen credits shy of graduating. He might get injured, lose his starting job, and transfer to another school. He might fail out.

From 1998 to 2001, the Atlantic Coast Conference graduated football players at a rate of 62.5 percent—20 percentage points lower than the graduation rate for the ACC’s general male student population. That’s the fourth-largest graduation gap in any athletic conference. In basketball, the ACC graduated 41.5 percent of its players—41 points lower than the general graduation rate, and the largest gap of any conference.

That sounds bad. That sounds like players from other conferences are better students than ACC athletes are. But that’s not exactly fair, Richard Southall says. His group at UNC’s College Sport Research Institute crunched the numbers that paint the ACC in such a bad light. Their results explain what the graduation gap really means.

First, the ACC’s athlete graduation rates look low because the conference’s general student graduation rate is high—82.5 percent. That’s higher than the general graduation rate in any other conference.

The academic standards at ACC schools are higher than in the SEC and other major sports conferences. “The ACC has three really good private schools—Boston College, Duke, and Wake Forest.” Southall says. The only private school in the Southeastern Conference, by comparison, is Vanderbilt. Throw in very strong public schools in the ACCUNC and UVA—and the difference is even greater. The numbers bear this out. The graduation rate of the SEC’s general male student population is 68.3. For basketball players, the SEC graduation rate is 37.4, lower than the ACC’s. But the graduation gap for the SEC is 31 percentage points. The ACC’s is 41.

Southall says that most universities have lower admissions standards for athletes, especially for those who play basketball and football, the two sports that bring in the most revenue through ticket sales, television contracts, and apparel deals. Those student athletes would never have been admitted if not for their athletic talents and a special admissions process. Some struggle to meet academic standards at schools with strong athletic and academic traditions.

The ACC is hardly alone in this. For basketball, the Pacific 10 Conference’s graduation gap is only three percentage points better than the ACC’s. The Pac-10 also has schools with very high academic standards—UC Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford. Southall found that all major basketball conferences have graduation gaps of at least twenty percentage points. For football, it’s at least ten percentage points.

It’s no secret some kids come to college to play sports first and earn a degree second. Many people blame the players. But Southall points his finger at the system.

Basketball season runs from November to March. “Players are forced to juggle full-time course loads around practice schedules, conditioning, film study, media requests, games, and travel,” Southall says. “Something has to give. Our study reveals that what’s giving is the graduation rate.”

Also, Southall says, big-time college sports are big-time business. Huge amounts of money exchange hands, largely from television contracts, some of which force basketball teams to play on weeknights at 9:00. (There are now college football games on television nearly every night.)

Southall isn’t convinced this is how we should run collegiate athletics. But under the system as it is, he wonders if it’s fair to compare these players’ graduation rates to those of full-time students who don’t have all the extra demands and don’t work full-time jobs.

“They’re just not students in the same way,” Southall says. Instead, he says it would be better to compare student athletes to students who also work jobs—for instance, part-time students.

So then why would Southall compare them? Because the federal government and the NCAA already do. The federal graduation rate measures the percentage of student athletes who graduate within six years from the same school they attended as freshmen. Southall says that’s a measurement of retention, not graduation. The NCAA’s graduation success rate doesn’t include transfers and other students who leave school early in good standing. But the NCAA does include part-time students, who often take longer than six years to graduate. That means the NCAA winds up with lower graduation rates for regular students. That, in turn, leads to a smaller graduation gap between athletes and regular students.

Southall’s method takes out the part-time bias to come up with adjusted graduation gaps, which compare the federal government’s graduation rate for student athletes with the graduation rates of regular full-time male students. This makes Southall’s adjusted graduation gaps larger than the NCAA’s graduation success rates.

Each year there’s talk about how to keep players in school, which inevitably leads to someone saying we ought to pay basketball and football players. After all, they’re the ones who are working these full-time jobs while going to school full time. Others dismiss such talk. They say that student athletes already get paid—free education, room, and board.

Southall sees problems with both views. Giving kids money—literally paying them cash—is anathema to the spirit of collegiate athletics. But he says that basketball and football programs create much of the revenue that helps pay for the lower-profile sports. What’s more, field hockey and lacrosse players, for instance, get exactly the same full-ride scholarships that basketball and football players get.

Southall says that minority student athletes are more likely to play football and basketball than other sports, and they’re more likely to be from lower-income families. Other researchers have put it in blunt terms—low-revenue programs make their living on the backs of low-income student-athletes. Southall’s center is now looking into how race, class, and culture factor into graduation rates.

“These issues are uncomfortable,” he says. “But we have to take a critical look at all this.”

Unless the system is changed and student athletes aren’t asked to work a full-time athletic job while going to school full time, Southall doesn’t think the graduation gaps will decrease much.

“I’m not a policy wonk,” Southall says. “I’m just a researcher. But there’s one idea I think has merit.” It’s a sort of voucher system where student athletes could go to school part-time while they exhaust their athletic eligibility. They’d finish school and earn a degree later. Some student athletes already do this, but they pay for tuition themselves because their scholarships have expired.

“Students could have the option of enrolling in such a system,” Southall says. “If they do, then they could go back to school when they have the time, inclination, and motivation to actually be students.”

Richard Southall is an assistant professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science in the College of Arts and Sciences. He’s the director of the College Sport Research Institute, housed at UNC.